Saluting Pianist Cecil Taylor


Free jazz forefather Cecil Taylor has lived in a three-story brownstone in Fort Greene for nearly 30 years, but the 83-year-old reclusive avant-garde iconoclast is finally coming home to Brooklyn.

Produced by Harlem Stage and ISSUE Project Room, “Cecil Taylor: A Celebration of the Maestro” will take Taylor’s acolytes, devotees, and the musically soon-to-be-liberated down the rabbit hole for two nights of his dizzying solo piano work, including a home-borough performance he has effectively been planning since the Reagan era; a program featuring pianists Vijay Iyer, Craig Taborn, and Amina Claudine Myers and poet Amiri Baraka; a tribute featuring pianist Thollem McDonas, bass clarinetist Arrington de Dionyso, and drummer William Hooker; and a retrospective of video footage from his storied career.

Catching Taylor in person is highly unlikely—this writer’s attempts to contact him included an impromptu trek out to his ivy-lined residence and extended correspondence with insect pathologist and jazz advocate Ana Isabel Ordonez over the course of a year. As it turns out, though, despite his status as a free-jazz innovator, Taylor is unable to define what it means to be “free.” “I have no idea,” he says with a bellowing laugh. “Freedom is mostly a written illusion.”

By turns laughing Buddha, Angel of Death, and mercurial court jester, Taylor is the indomitable burning bush of the jazz avant-garde—inscrutable yet inescapable, pounding the keys with a fire that burns up the piano but doesn’t consume it. Famously compared to “88 tuned drums,” his celestial constellations of atonal chords have mystified audiences since he exploded onto the scene in the ’50s, a vertiginous rush that sounds like a baby grand falling down a spiral staircase and hitting all the right notes.

Pianist Taborn had his first close encounter with Taylor’s nebulous brand of ostensibly formless form as a preteen, borrowing it from the library. Like the awestruck protagonist in H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann”—who discovers the titular character creating haunting walls of sound to keep demons from another dimension at bay—after hearing Taylor, Taborn was never the same again. “The catalyst for it might have been Frank Zappa,” Taborn says, referring to the antiestablishment rock icon’s 1967 “best of” list in Hit Parader. “Zappa [said], ‘If you want to learn how to play piano, listen to Cecil Taylor.’ It sort of made sense.”

Taylor fundamentally altered jazz vocabulary and revolutionized the function of the piano in an ensemble, a role that had been whittled down during the bebop era. “That influence is so hard to evade in the history of improvised music,” Taborn says. “To some extent, still, it’s like you’re playing Cecil whenever you do a lot of things, no matter how hard you try.”

Baraka first felt Taylor’s influence after his groundbreaking 1957 performances at the Five Spot Café in the East Village, and the two eventually connected on the underground loft jazz scene in the ’70s. “Cecil brought the feeling of avant-garde concert music into what’s called jazz,” Baraka says. “He really forced the boundaries of people’s hearing. And if you’ve heard Cecil’s music, you can estimate how it is to work with him.” The two have a history of performing duets, sometimes with Taylor contributing his own poetry. “Cecil’s certainly got a flair for language, but I told him, ‘Next time you do that, I’m going to play the piano.'”

Myers insists that despite how Taylor’s boundary-shattering note clusters might sound to an untrained ear, the emperor is indeed fully clothed. “He’s so open, but the music is constructed. He’s not just playing randomly. It definitely has a focus,” she says.

Taylor, for his part, says that he has spent his whole life honing this accidentally-on-purpose aesthetic.

“It’s a compositional form that leads to an improvisational form,” he says. “I’ve only been doing it for about 79 years. Practice, practice, practice.”

“Cecil Taylor: A Celebration of the Maestro” continues at Harlem Stage Gatehouse, ISSUE Project Room, and Anthology Film Archives through May 22. Taylor will perform at Harlem Stage Gatehouse on May 17 and at ISSUE Project Room on May 19.